BREAKING: BOF Slashes $1.1 Million from School Budget; $309,000 from Town–but Mill Rate Rises 1.24%
UPDATE: Wilton’s Board of Finance members have reviewed the numbers put together by the town and school officials, and after deliberating Tuesday evening, have approved a proposed FY2020 budget increase of 1.24% over last year’s, or a mil rate of 28.5373.
The proposed budget that the Board of Finance will bring to residents at the Annual Town Meeting and Vote on Tuesday, May 7, is leaner than either the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen had wanted. In fact, the Board of Finance actually cut both budgets presented to them–slashing $1.1 million from the Board of Education and $309,000 from the Board of Selectmen and effectively keeping their proposed budgets flat year-to-year. For FY2020 the BOF has asked the BOE to stay at $81.9 million for another year and the BOS to remain flat as well at $33.5 million.
So why has the mill rate increased, even when the school and town budgets haven’t? It’s because of how the math works out. With this year’s revaluation, the town’s Grand List dropped in value; as a result, the mill rate–or the rate at which property owners are taxed–has to go up to meet the budget.
The members of the Board of Finance were split along party lines: Democrats Ceci Maher and John Kalamarides fought to let the keep the budgets as presented but were unable to convince their Republican colleagues Jeff Rutishauser (BOF chair), Peter Balderston, Stewart Koenigsberg and Walter Kress (by phone).
The majority members resisted allowing any proposed budget increase for fear of what Balderston called “the other shoe to drop”–legislative moves from Hartford that they say could end up costing the town significantly. “This time I think it is going to be of a magnitude that is dramatic. Even if it is one-third of what we estimate this to be, which is about $14-$15 million, it will be very hard on Wilton.”
He pointed to the large amount of residents who will be impacted from the grand list reduction, by saying, “Almost 50% of town residents, largely in smaller homes and condos will experience a significant [tax] increase. Over 50% of the homes in Wilton have no kids in the school now, and we need to balance the approach to how these fiscal impacts from Hartford will be felt.”
Balderston said by cutting the school and town budgets, the burden of the revaluation impact will be spread across all three parts of the town–the BOE, the BOS and taxpayers.
Maher lauded the school officials efforts to present a budget increase (1.35%) below the 1.6% guidelines initially set by the Board of Finance, and referred to what she said was “a clear message from people in the town about what they felt about the schools.” Referring to concerns several members of the BOF expressed about the legislative proposals in Hartford, she argued against leading “with fear,” and suggested approaching their role with “informed decision making.”
Kalamarides was visibly unhappy with the cuts to the school budget–and the reasons behind it.
“We knew that [revaluation] was coming this fall. Why didn’t we stop the Board of Education and Selectmen from going forward at that point? Why didn’t we say, ‘Stop, it’s going to be a flat year.’ Now we’re inflicting this terrible pain on these people. Plus, you’re putting your principles above 10,000 people who have joined Hands Off Our Schools,” he said, referring to the grassroots organization defending local school districts from regionalization efforts.”
He continued, “You’ve really got to consider something here: You have the crown jewel of Wilton, the reason people move here–and we’re going to cut that budget? We have one of the best schools in the country and we’re going to chip away at that? And we’re not going to have one of the best schools in the country.”
Those same complaints came from Maher.
“Did we give any kind of direction on what the level of the BOE and the BOS should be? We knew by January, February when they came to present to the board. At what point do we go back to them? We are wasting taxpayer money by not giving them the right information up front.”
Maher and Kalamarides had a hard time with their argument, given what was on Rutishauser’s mind: “Let’s face it–we’re less wealthy this year than we were six years ago,” he said, adding later, “But there is an event that will hit the taxpayer with 100% certainty: the impact of the revaluation on everyone’s taxes. This year it’s critical to focus on the burden of the Wilton taxpayer.”
Under the Town Charter, the Board of Finance is permitted to make line item cuts to the BOS budget; instead, they conferred with First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and decided to let the BOS make decisions for where cuts will be made.
As for the BOE, the Board of Finance is only authorized to make a cut to the top-line budget amount; any line-item cuts from that budget reduction are in the purview of the Board of Education. However, the members of the Finance Board spent some time asking Schools’ Superintendent Kevin Smith about a surplus Continuing Education account holding more than $1 million. Kevin explained that he had that money earmarked for coming capital projects, including renovating culinary spaces at Middlebrook and Wilton High School, because they were spaces used by both students and Continuing Education programs.
One other thing the BOF did that was a little unusual was add $500,000 above the 10% required by Moodys to the fund balance. Rutishauser explained his rationale for the move as wanting to have an amount close to the anticipated $463,000 that officials believe the state will ask Wilton to contribute toward the teacher pension.
The BOF will come back together Wednesday evening to formalize the number crunching with official resolutions, to lock in the proposed budget they’ll bring to the town meeting.
Response from Bd. of Education Chair
Christine Finkelstein, the chair of the Board of Education, sent the following comment about the cuts made by the Bd. of Finance:
“Needless to say we are very disappointed that the Board of Finance rejected our modest 1.35% budget increase. Worth mentioning, our request was well below the 1.6% guidance the Board of Finance had suggested.
“I want to assure our students, families and staff members though, that we will work hard to minimize the impact of tonight’s action, and that we will not compromise the high standards of the Wilton Public Schools.
“With tonight’s action, the Board of Finance would seem to have ignored the results of its own survey, which found more than 80% of residents said they moved here for our schools, with a majority saying they didn’t think existing spending levels were too high.”
Response from First Selectwoman
Lynne Vanderslice, Wilton’s first selectwoman, sent the following comment:
“I am conflicted about the Board of Finance’s decision to not recommend an increase in the Board of Selectmen’s budget for FY2020.
“On the one hand, I am extremely concerned about the disproportional impact that revaluation will have on residents’ FY2020 property taxes. At a time when the overall residential grand list is down 4%, approximately one-half of residential taxpayers saw their valuations increase, meaning their taxes will increase at a much greater rate than the 1.24% proposed mil rate increase. For many, their increase will not be sustainable. We are working to identify ways, outside of the budget, to assist those residents.
“On the other hand, the Town department heads and the Board of Selectmen submitted a budget, which we felt was appropriate and which already included staffing reductions. We have returned almost $3 million to the general fund in the four years from FY2016 through this current year. Much of that was labor savings achieved through vacancies, not layoffs. We obviously have not yet developed a plan to absorb this reduction, but I know I speak for the entire Board of Selectmen when I say we are committed to seeking measures that do not include layoffs.”
ORIGINAL STORY: Wilton’s Board of Finance members are meeting tonight to discuss the budget they’ll bring to the Annual Town Vote in May, and during their initial deliberations they have voted to slash $1.1 million from the numbers proposed by the Board of Education. By a vote of 4-2, they have decided to keep the school budget flat year-to-year, and ask the BOE to go back and figure out where to eliminate that amount.
note: The article was updated with a replacement BOF chart sent by the board chair. The new chart reflects parenthetical notations that were not correct in the original version; totals were the same in both charts, however.